Automotive History: 1949-1954 Muntz Jet – “I Buy Them At Retail And Sell Them At Wholesale”

A luxurious high-performance four seater, with a removable hardtop and solid American production-car underpinnings. Sounds like a winning combination. But as Earl “Madman” Muntz soon found it, it was a money-losing proposition. But he didn’t care, and just kept making them anyway until he finally gave up in 1954.

He had good company, as he was hardly the first—or last—to be sucked into the ego-driven financial black hole of building a car with your name on it.

It’s not like Muntz didn’t know what he was getting into, which was the Kurtis Sport Car, a money-losing two-seater that race car builder Frank Kurtis had started building in 1949, using a ’49 Ford chassis and drive train as its basis. Its price was $3495, the same as the superb new Jaguar XK-120. In order to make the base 100 hp flathead Ford V8 even remotely competitive, it needed to be hopped up, up to some 160 hp, but that pushed the price close to $5000; in other words, not even remotely competitive to the Jaguar. Only some 18-36 of them were ever sold, either fully assembled or kits.

So Kurtis bailed, selling the manufacturing rights, blueprints, parts and tooling to Earl Muntz for $200,000, who had made a fortune selling used and new cars.  His tactic for selling cars were ahead of the times, creating attention and spectacles in any way he could, through stunts and such, heavily promoted on radio and tv. He was convinced he could sell the Jet too, even if it was to a different market.

Muntz’ two dealerships in Los Angeles were the world’s largest, and became tourist attractions. One of his notorious Madman Muntz used-car TV pitches was “I buy ’em retail and sell ’em wholesale … it’s more fun that way! He would soon be able to say that with a straight face regarding the Jet.

A small production facility was set up in Glendale, CA. The wheelbase was stretched to 113″, in order to make it a four-seater. The new Cadillac 331 V8 and Hydramatic transmission were bought and installed, making these pretty lively, with a top speed of some 115-125 mph. A three speed manual was also available.

There was no room behind the rear seat for a folding soft top, so the top had be lifted off, and apparently had a rigid steel structure despite the external appearance of being a soft top.

The dash was very straightforward, a machine turned plate which held a complete set of SW instruments.

The back seat was just barely adequate in terms of space, and after production was moved to Illinois in 1951, the wheelbase was increased to 116″ to improve on that, and steel was used for body panels instead of aluminum.

Since these were built in very small numbers, there’s a wide range of details and interiors.

The Illinois-built Jets also switched to the Lincoln 337 CID flathead V8, still with the Hydramatic. It too was rated at 160 hp. Options to increase power were also available, and supposedly two Jets were built near the end of their run with 331 Chrysler hemis.

Production costs were way too high, and Muntz lost money on every one, ultimately some $400k in total, on 198 Jets built, or some $2000 per car.  I buy them at retail and sell them at wholesale. True That.

Some see the Jet was the precursor to the Thunderbird, the four passenger one, I assume. There’s some logic to that, but I doubt Ford was looking at the Jet when it decided to go that route.

Although the format is a bit different, I’d say it’s more of a precursor to cars like the Bricklin and DeLorean, in that both of those were trying to compete against mass-production sports cars without having the benefits of scale, especially so in the case of the Bricklin.

No need to shed any tears for Muntz. Already starting in 1947, he was revolutionizing the tv business. He quite brilliantly figured out how to build tvs with only 17 vacuum tubes instead of the 30 or more in his competitors’ sets, and reduced other components too. This allowed him to sell the first tv set for under $100 in 1951, and this large 27″ set for under $200 in 1957. He obviously didn’t spend money on typesetting the text of his ads either.

Muntz also aggressive sold car radios, essentially pioneering the aftermarket car audio business.

In 1962, Muntz again revolutionized the consumer electronics industry with the “Stereo-Pak” 4-track audio tape player, which eventually gave birth to the more popular 8-track player. A brilliant and shrewd businessman, Muntz could afford to indulge his ego on the Jet. Selling to the masses turned out to be a lot easier than to the fickle affluent.